28 June – 3 July 1940
On the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, warm breeze was announcing the usual onset of summer. The potato season finished early that year and many of the farmers were busy trimming the thick hedgerows along the roads in preparation for the year’s first Visite de Branchage – wayside greenery inspection. Located 100 hundred miles south of England but barely 14 miles off the French mainland, the Channel Islands were – and are – a piece of British territory with a French zest.
This territory was to be left to the Germans. On 15 June, one day after the German army occupied Paris, the government announced that the Channel Islands would not be defended. Reportedly, Winston Churchill was “Repugnant to abandon territory held by Crown since the Norman Conquest”, but the geographic position made the defence of the islands impractical; thus their fate was sealed.
However, in fear of feeding the German propaganda, the decision was not announced to the German forces.
On 18 June, No. 501 Squadron RAF on Hurricanes made a short visit to St. Helier on Jersey, covering the final evacuations form Cherbourg, before moving on itself to Croydon.
Realizing occupation was inevitable, some islanders vacated their homes and headed for the harbor with the possessions they could carry. With very few boats available, priority for evacuation was given to children and Jewish inhabitants. There was confusion among the authorities, leading to contradicting instructions. The authorities on Alderney recommended that all islanders evacuate, and nearly all did so; the Dame of Sark encouraged everyone to stay. Guernsey evacuated all children of school age, giving the parents the option of keeping their children with them. In Jersey, the majority of islanders chose to stay. In any case, the evacuation possibilities were offered only until 21 June, the same time as the last military personnnel was leaving the islands.
Despite the feeling of apprehension, the daily life of those who stayed went on. Sparkling seas and sandy beaches were still attracting children. Tomato picking was well underway. The local climate is milder than in most parts of England and tomato growing for market was practised extensively on the islands. Lorries were busy delivering the cargo to warehouses, markets and boats.
The Germans were unaware that the islands had been left undefended. On 18 June, a reconnaissance aircraft flew over the area photographing the harbours and the aerodromes. The images showed concentration of vehicles and ships in Guernsey’s St Peter Port. What the Germans interpreted as military columns and troop carriers, were actually tomato lorries lined up to load their harvest for export to England.
On 28 June, a formation of bombers was sent to attack the alleged British force. A young boy named Malcolm Woodland was with his parents in the Guernsey harbour at the time:
“I looked up, and coming up from the south were specks of silver in the sky and they got closer and closer. Dad said, ‘Look, there they are!’ and I could see them! We could see by then that they were fairly large aircraft, as far as I was concerned anyway, and they were in a formation. We were just getting on the bus, and I said to Dad, ‘Why are they putting ladders down from the aircraft?’. He looked up and said ‘Oh my Gawd!’, and he called to my Mum, ‘Quick, get off the bus, we’ve got to go!’. The ladders weren’t ladders, they were the vertical descent of the bombs shining in the sun; this was an air raid!”
The attack on Guernsey, which lasted about half an hour, destroyed many – about 50 – tomato lorries in the port together with some harbour facilities, a tobacco factory and fruit export sheds. 33 (some sources state 44) civilians were killed in the raid, with further 67 injured.
Two days later, the Germans recognized their mistake. On 30 June, a lone Luftwaffe aircraft landed on Guernsey airfield, three miles south west of St. Peter Port. Three Germans emerged and demanded the surrender of the island from a local policeman.
At 6 a.m. on the following morning, German troops landed on Jersey, then Alderney on 2 July and Sark on the 3rd. There was no opposition.
The Jersey Aerodrome was used during the Battle of Britain as a forward base for Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters.
Performing the role of an improvised fuel bowser is a lorry from local entrepreneur J H Miller.
The Channel Islands were invaded for the first time since the times of King Louis XVI. They were to be the only piece of Britain that ever was to experience the infamous Nazi occupation. The latter followed the same pattern as in the other conquered countries: the islanders were to suffer ruthless deprivation. Already on Monday 1 July 1940, The Guernsey Press printed orders from the occupiers including rules on curfew, ban on private weapon ownership and sale of motor fuel. Soon, all private use of cars was banned and the best vehicles were quickly requisitioned by the Germans. Villages and towns were given German names, clocks were set to Central European time. Social meetings were forbidden and food shortages worsened. In 1942, much of the English-born male population between the ages of 16-70, together with their families, were deported to Germany.
“No one who experienced it will ever forget the feeling of depression with which we awoke… Our beloved Islands in the hands of the enemy, dreading what the future might hold, conscious of our complete isolation, we realised with sinking hearts that life would be totally different, but how different none could guess.”
Rev. S. E. Beaugie, M.A.
– 70 Years On from Guernsey’s Occupation, BBS Guernsey
– BBC People’s war: The Bombing of Guernsey Harbour 28th June 1940
– The Cabinet Papers 1915-1979, The National Archives